Tag Archives: Culture

A Call To Cultural Re-engagement – The 3 Silos

In our last post we considered how the way society thinks is changing. However, when we come to investigate why Christians have lost their voice and influence in society then the picture becomes even more stark. In the past the UK used to be a country that listened to, and even respected, Christian leaders as a voice of moral authority. This is no longer the case.  The structures within society do not lend themselves to helping us discuss the important issues of life and faith. Thus, this leaves us without a platform to defend or explain our position.

I see three main areas where these changes have occurred which mean that rather than being a city on a hill, we are now a city in a valley. We are hidden from society and our light is not shining as brightly because our platform, confidence and practice have been eroded. For each area I propose some ideas for how we can break out of our silos.

1. Erosion of Christian Structures

Many years ago Christianity was at the heart of the community. Everything happened either at the church, or through the church. Everyone knew the minister and the church had a dominant role in the life of individuals.  There were also strong community bonds that held influence over the behaviour and attitudes of the church and wider society. While not everyone liked the church or its leaders, they at least knew who they were and their opinion mattered within the local parish. However, there was undoubtably a nominalism and deadness to some of church life that sometimes put more importance on respectability and appearances than genuine faith and true piety.

In the past, we used to think we could just open the doors and people would come in, this is no longer the case. Secularisation has been one of the major causes of this change – diminishing the influence of the church as a public voice and removing it from the market place. Our place in the centre of society has gone, we are now on the periphery. New ways of establishing a presence in a secular nation and our communities must be found if we are to engage with our culture.

Breaking down the Silo: The only way we can break out of our silo is to establish living connections with those around us. We will have to balance the desire to share our faith, with the need to first listen to others. We need to first learn how to serve and love our community as an end in itself – to love it as God loves us, with no thought of what we will receive in return. For too long we have separated the word and deed – swinging to either extreme. Fortunately many churches are re-engaging in their community in various ways and many individuals are seeing the importance of establishing strong community connections. In the  business community and the arts, I see a vision among many for affirming what is good in society and building bridges. The task is to contribute something positive to society.

The challenge we must ask ourselves is: “Do we find ourselves only ever complaining or moaning about society? Do we find most of our time is spent with other Christians?” We need to learn how to affirm what is good; seek new ways to build connections with the community we live / work in and look to serve people holistically. If we do this, getting opportunities to share what is so important to us won’t be a problem.

2. Privitisation of Faith

We are constantly told that “It’s ok to believe what you want in the privacy of your own home, just don’t go forcing anyone else to believe in the tooth fairy”. Our lack of confidence means we retreat from engaging in public debates; we internalise our faith and it becomes private – not to be shared in public. A misrepresented view of science is used to support this pressure with prominent secularists claiming that “you cannot be logical, rational and have a faith”. This is made worse by the wide disagreement between Christians of how to understand scientific evidence and how this relates to biblical inspiration. We are divided and confused, so we stay silent.home-prison

Breaking down the Silo: I sometimes wonder if we have gone down a wrong alley by creating a space between apologetics and the gospel? Perhaps we see the gospel as the message about Jesus’ death and resurrection,  and apologetics about defending biblical inspiration, creation or explaining why there is suffering etc. This gives the impression they are two separate things, the former being essential, the latter optional. When our apologetics is weak or under threat we are tempted to retreat to focussing on the gospel. We then stick to communicating only these core themes, but they are detached from a broader meaning and context in society.

But does this fit with biblical patterns? In Acts 18 (in Athens) and 26 (before Agrippa) Paul takes the eternal truths of God’s saving plan and interweaves them with contemporary issues, values and culture through the backdrop of God’s redemption of mankind. There is no distinction between where apologetics starts and ends and the message about Jesus as Saviour and Judge starts and ends. We need to reclaim the pattern of communicating the gospel as: Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and return >> within God’s redemptive plan >> within the broader Christian worldview. Our message needs to touch on each of these three areas every time we communicate. This is how the new testament authors explained the eternal truth that they were communicating. In Acts 26.1 Paul uses the Greek word apologeomai when describing the act of declaring his message – not the content of the message itself.

3. Compartmentalising our Lives

Because of the pressure we feel from #2, we make our lives fit into various boxes of work; home; social; church. We create a spiritual / secular divide and have in our minds a view of what constitutes a spiritual activity (i.e. things done at church or supporting the work of the church) and social / secular activities (that have little, if any, spiritual value). We see the value of activities as they relate to our ability to either fund or directly engage in spiritual activities (as defined previously). The impact of this is that we live in different worlds, adapting to the expected behaviours and norms within each box. The increasing pressure to keep faith out of the workplace means that while we may try our best to live out our Christian principles in our workplace, we struggle to articulate our faith. It will also mean that we become desperate to spend our time in activities which we deem to be the best use of our limited time. Time spent in secular activity will become simply waiting time until we can “do something of eternal value”.

Breaking down the Silo: I was fascinated by this interview with Tim Keller, particularly the fourth question. I think many of us are guilty of saying we believe all callings are equally valid (that’s not to say they are all equal), while at the same time we still act as though some callings are more God-honouring than others. In a mark of true humility and honesty, Keller admits that he feels this tension. The only way to break out of this silo is to reclaim a biblical view of work, where whatever we do can and should be done for the Lord – an incredibly liberating and affirming position.

So the question is: “Are we constantly feeling that our time is being wasted, because we are not doing more spiritual work?” (that’s not to say we shouldn’t prioritise our time or set aside individuals to be devoted to preaching and prayer). And: “Are we intentionally cross-fertilising our boxes, at the right time, so that people see us in a different context?” Social media is a perfect tool to do this cross-fertilisation – “Are we using social media intentionally; who is listening or following you? Is it only people who think the same way as you do?”

Let me know your thoughts on these and other silos and how we can break out of them.

A Call to Cultural Re-engagement – The 3 Chasms

Cultural Distance in the UK

When I had more spare time, I used to lead many Alpha and Christianity Explored courses. The first talk on the Alpha course is always: ”Christianity: Boring, Untrue & Irrelevant?” In order to engage we need to first understand where people are. This talk seeks to engage the pre-conceptions and misunderstandings that people have in order to re-engage them with Christianity.

I believe Alpha’s first talk was true to the questions people were asking a few years ago, but now, I believe, UK society has moved further away. Let me say that I’m a big fan of both Alpha and CE and I have used them both many times in the past. However, I believe we have underestimated both the size of the gap between us and society and the depth of the problem. 

As I watch UK culture, I believe that religion is no longer seen as something misguided but benign, but rather something that is actually harmful to an enlightened society. The case is being made by prominent secular humanists, parts of the media and some political figures that religion is actually a source of corruption and a dumbing down of our natural intellect. It is explained as a vestigial coping mechanism that might have had a use in giving us a misguided comfort before science removed our need for false hope in gods and superstitious fear of ghouls. It is now redundant and primitive.

As I was thinking about these things, I was studying Acts 26 for a message and it hit me the difference between Paul standing before Agrippa and us standing before our society today. Standing before Agrippa Paul could rely on three levels of common ground – general revelation (nature / creation), special revelation (biblical revelation) and shared cultural values (those of the Jewish nation).

My proposition was that all these three have been removed in our day, so I titled my talk: “A Reasonable Faith: Christianity: Unscientific, Corrupt & Intolerant?” I believe these three areas describe the areas where society is questioning the integrity of the Christian faith. I recognise that it is a spectrum of views – not everyone is thinking like this, but many are and they are asking questions that we, on the whole are not answering.

  • Unscientific? We now face a credibility gap where science is seen to have provided the answers and we are holding onto out-dated ideas. It has removed the shared ground of General Revelation – a common understanding in our origins.
  • Corrupt? With the increasing confidence of authors such as Dan Brown and the decreasing biblical literacy, false information and inaccurate historical claims can easily sway public opinion. We now face a reliability gap when the historical reliability of the New Testament is assumed to be a matter of personal opinion. The church is thought to have re-interpreted or even edited earlier versions to suit their own political purposes. This has removed any remaining Special Revelation common ground, so that biblical authority is an oxymoron.
  • Intolerant? As the faithful believers continue to hold onto biblical truth and society’s moral standards diverge from these truths, our stance is seen as being intolerant of other positions. We now face a compassion gap, where we are seen as intolerant bigots for not allowing everyone a right to have their views accepted. This has eroded our common ground of Shared Cultural Values so that we can no longer assume or expect others to share or even understand our ethical views.

Do you agree that this is a fair assessment of where our society is at, or perhaps at least, the direction it is heading? If so, then the question we need to ask ourselves is whether we are bridging the chasms in our cultural engagement or throwing well-intentioned homilies into the abyss? If people really are thinking this way, how do we leap across the chasms to speak something meaningful to them?

Paul himself explained that God was the creator, sustainer and saviour of the world to the mainly Greek audience in Athens is a way that would engage their cultural antenna – referring to their poets and influential thinkers of the time (see Acts 17.22 and following). He explained the good news of Jesus using the language and concepts of the Athenians – sometimes seeking to build common ground, at other times directly challenging it. But the important thing is that he had clearly thought through the challenges and adapted his style to his different audiences. Have we thought through the challenges these chasms present and come to a position that we can articulate? Are we prepared to think the hard thoughts that possibly our current ways of communicating are simply lost across the chasm because we are assuming a common ground that no longer exists? These are the challenges that face us in engaging with our culture. Tools such as CE and Alpha are still vital as we live in a heterogeneous society with the remnants of a Christian heritage, but we cannot rely on a one-size-fits-all approach.

Or perhaps you are on the other side as you read this – an atheist, agnostic or you prefer not to label yourself. How do you see things from the other side of the chasm? Reach out and let me know. I’m listening.

A call for cultural engagement – the mandate

According to a recent poll the number of atheists in Britain has risen from 14% to 42% since 1963. While the sample size of 1,749 people represents only 0.0027% of the UK population, few would argue that our country has become increasingly secular. Moreover, while the steady decline in church attendance seems to have finally bottomed out in the last couple of years, the church in the UK has been increasingly marginalised. As a result we now sit on the margins of society.

However, as with many institutions, the church is a broad…well…a broad church, of various groups and the picture is not the same across all the denominations. Indeed, there are encouraging pockets of growth in some areas.

What is interesting is that what you find when you look within the sub-trends where the church is particularly weak – fewer men, fewer young people, more people believing without belonging, fewer poor people. According to one source, in the last 20 years 49% of men under 30 left the church.  How do we respond to these challenges? Can we engage with and influence the forces shaping our culture? How do we reach those beyond the fringes of our church activities?

As someone who has spent the last 10 years working every day in this culture alongside people completely outwith the reach of the activities of the church I have seen first hand their changing views on the church. I have also seen first hand how the business world impacts professional men and women and the pressures it puts on them that make church involvement harder and harder. Others will be better placed to speak about issues impacting the poor and the young, but I want to share some ideas for how I see the world in the UK marketplace.

Over the course of three articles I want to illustrate how UK society has changed and how we need to respond to that change. I believe we need to better understand and engage with our culture before thinking that we are able to speak into it. The articles also seek to provide a high-level context of some of the main cultural shifts that have taken place over the past few decades as society has moved away from its Judeo-Christian roots and towards secular humanism. It is in response to that changing landscape that our traditional concept of what ministry is and how we do ministry within and without the sphere of influence of the church must change. The challenge for our generation is to take the eternal, unchanging truth of God into a rapidly changing, anchorless and disintegrating society.

Salt and Light

I believe the need of the hour in the UK is to reconnect our faith with the workplace. What does it mean to thrive as a Christian in our secular employment? First we must remind ourselves of God’s perspective:

You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavour, how shall it be seasoned? It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men. You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” Matthew 5.14

This is the original mandate to the Church – to be a city on a hill for all to see. It is about our POSITION – to be somewhere where we are visible and effective. I want to try and show that through the barriers and silos that have been put up we have largely been hidden from the eyes of popular culture and the wider society. It is not enough anymore to open our doors and expect people to come in; we must go out to them in ways that are meaningful to them.

We must think again at how churches, organisations and individuals can re-establish connections with the culture around them. The majority of Christians are in the working world for the majority of their time – what does that mean for us? How do we become that city on a hill? Can we find a vehicle / mechanism that enables us to be more exposed?

However, it is also about PURITY – the second illustration Jesus uses is the salt of the earth. This is a personal challenge. If God increases our visibility, it is with the end goal of glorifying Him through our actions – would shining a light on our lives lead to the glory of God?  Are we ready to be used? We must address this challenge first. God is looking for those individuals who have cleansed themselves and are clean vessels, ready to be poured into by His Spirit.

14 Lessons from the Crucible

 14 Lessons from the crucible – walking with the Lord in the furnace of secular employment

Warning: I have written this in the pressure of intense work situation and am still working through some of the issues raised. It’s pretty raw, be patient with me if you are further along the path my brother or sister, I am just a beginner on this path asking questions. Also, forgive me if it’s more personal than my usual reflections, I believe we need to debate some of the issues I raise in a mature and godly manner, I am seeking to do just that in this piece. I welcome your comments and additions.

Let me cut to the chase: in my early 20s I thought I was going to be a missionary, in my late 20s and early 30s I became convinced I was being called to ministry of the word, thinking that the pastorate was ahead. In my mid to late 30s I have finally realised that God is wanting me to stop planning my future, but instead be his slave in the present, in this place, for his purpose. Whatever might happen in the future it is up to him to use me as he decides, whatever and wherever that might be.

As I grew up I imbibed the unspoken assumption that full-time vocational Christian ministry was God’s best for me, and for anyone else for that matter. I subconsciously, and sometimes consciously, sought to direct my life towards that goal. It was not hard to seek this path, as I have found this principle to be assumed and encouraged by the vast majority of our Christian books, sermons and teachers. However, at each stage of my life I have experienced the various means of God’s guidance to pull me back to the workplace.  Sometimes it was circumstances, sometimes it was a growing inner conviction that this was where God wanted me, sometimes it was the conversation with godly Christian friends and family. Yet, through it all, as I spent year after year in the workplace I still had the underlying assumption (and hope!) that one day, in some way, God would finally release me to serve him “fully” and glorify him more completely by devoting some, if not all, of my time to Christian ministry. This was particularly the case as I didn’t “feel” called to the workplace, rather the opposite, I felt called to ministry.

However, over the last 18 months the more I have tried to serve God the less time he has given me to do it. Or so I thought. I had to step back from responsibilities at church, reduce my preaching commitments and dedicate myself more fully, completely to my work. The little time I had left was given to trying to protect time for my wife and young family. I have not been there for friends, I have not been there for the prayer meetings nor the bible studies nor the evening service. I am only at church on Sunday mornings and I wait for them as an oasis of Shalom; the beauty and peace of fully dedicated time to be in the Lord’s house with the Lord’s people. These times have become ever more precious to me.

So, last year I wrote what I was learning about ministry of the word within a mundane job.  How things have changed in 12 months! Now I am at the opposite extreme –responsibility, pressure, flat out and exhausted. I have finally started to realise that God has made me a certain way, for a certain purpose and that this is to do strategy and to preach the word. For these two things I exist on this planet.

Slowly, imperceptibly, God has broken this assumption in me. No longer do I see a spiritual vocational hierarchy when I look through God’s eyes. I see people, made in his image, with his variety of gifting and capability, made to serve him in a multitude of ways, across every vocation and discipline. I see those that have searched their heart and fulfilled their calling and those that are yet to find it. I now see that the most menial of tasks, done for the glory of God and in obedience to his call, can be the highest form of service that you or I can offer him (if that is his will for us). I know we say we believe this, but in reality do we?

Obedience is the key, it is the secret jewel of Christian usefulness and confidence. It is better to obey than sacrifice the ancients said and Jesus repeated. It is most blessed to obey – the most blessed path possible, wherever that obedience leads you.

Here are 14 things I have learnt and am continuing to learn, but before you read them please consider what I am not saying. I am not saying that “it doesn’t matter what you do, because all activity is equally worthy”. Neither am I saying that full-time Christian vocational ministry is not valid, needed, necessary and absolutely God’s best for many of us. I have too many pastors, pioneer missionaries and evangelists for friends to be unaware of the mighty responsibility and urgent need of this awesome calling. Don’t think I am wanting to swing the pendulum the other way and say we don’t need anyone full-time. What I am challenging is the assumption that this is always the best way for all of us (particularly those involved in word ministry) to serve him and other paths are second best. Perhaps you never had this assumption – praise God!

  1. Obedience is more important than any perceived increase or decrease in ministry effectiveness. For some the calling of God can actually mean they move away from opportunities for direct Christian service, for others it will be the opposite. We should not automatically equate either direction with increasing faithfulness, sacrifice or obedience. The meanest and most mundane work can be our most glorifying service when done as an offering to the Lord.
  2. For the many Christians, their highest calling will be the workplace and home. This should be recognised, affirmed and encouraged. They are as much called to their jobs and homes as the mission field. But it is not a competition between vocations – each in its uniqueness and splendour is treasured by God.
  3. The calling to the workplace is as valid, important and God-honouring as the calling to the pastorate or mission field. For some their highest calling will be to guard the theological strongholds, translate tribal languages and protect the flock from continuous attacks from without and within. But the calling to the workplace is not a lesser calling, or God’s second best. The workplace can lead to incredible usefulness in God’s hands – e.g. the construction supervisor Nehemiah, the civil servant and administrator Joseph, the beautician and model Esther, the government official Daniel, the politician William Wilberforce, among many others…
  4. My cross-cultural ministry begins on Monday morning and finishes on Friday evening. I am immersed in a pagan society all day every day, seeking to live counter-culturally without retreating into a ghetto or being weird in order to be noticed. Every religious habit or sacred ritual needs to be examined to see if its  essential or a cultural barrier. Every character trait is laid bare, examined and tested in real time by a watching world.
  5. The best way to glorify God with your life is whatever he has gifted and called us to do. For some this will be vocational Christian mission and ministry, for others it will be the workplace and home. Are we willing to spread wide the application of the challenge to glorify God with our lives? Are we prepared to affirm the calling of those who have little time to give to church meetings?
  6. The desire and gifting to do Christian ministry do not constitute, in themselves, a call.  I believe the internal call of God must be married with an external call from without. Both a calling to be his vessel and a calling to a location, resulting from the right doors opening at the right time.
  7. There is no spiritual vocation hierarchy. It is perhaps not said outright, but there is no doubting its presence – there are those in our churches who do ministry with a capital “M”, and then there are the rest of us. What does our definition of “ministry” include? Is it restricted to word ministry (preaching, teaching and evangelism) or maybe we also include service to the poor, sick and suffering (pastoral)? Yes, we also include those who serve as professionals abroad in some distant land. But, what if you see yourself as a professional in a cross-cultural, anti-Christian community in your homeland? Is that really ministry? Yes, some vocations require greater sacrifice and others bring greater earthly rewards, but through it all it is the obedience that is important not the activity. However, the majority of the application from Christian books and sermons gives the impression that working for the church or missions (either paid or voluntarily) is superior in God’s sight to working in secular employment. The impression is that service to God begins when one engages on church work in the evenings or weekends.
  8. Post-Christian countries like the UK will only be reached when this truth is finally believed by the church and impacts how it trains, equips and supports those in the workplace. This generation will only be reached when we intentionally present and affirm the workplace as a valid, important and glorifying to God vocation to our best young men and women – our most promising leaders. We will only affirm it if we really believe, not just say we believe it.
  9. For secular, anti-Christian cultures, bivocational ministry may actually the best possible model to reach society. I believe that being in full-time secular employment gives greater opportunity for cultural interpretation, insight and engagement than being in full-time Christian employment. New models for ministry training and church leadership are needed to reach, train and commission the next generation of church planters and leaders from those within the workplace.
  10. There is no such thing as “lay” ministry, no sacred / secular divide, no clergy / laity division. Yes, there is such a thing as people being appointed to a particular role and function within church leadership, nevertheless, uniting everyone is the priesthood of all believers and each believer is a holy temple called to their own role and place of influence.
  11. The role of a pastor is the absolute highest calling for pastors. The role of a teacher is the absolute highest calling for Christian teachers. The vital thing is to know for sure in our hearts that we are in the calling we are meant to be in.
  12. There has never been more expected of employees, more asked by employers and more penetration of people’s private lives by the pressure to always be “online”. The training, equipping and encouraging of leaders in the workplace has never been more difficult, with long hours, long commutes and little spare time. Yet few churches really see this as a vital ministry ground or are set up to support and affirm those in this position.
  13. The prayerful assessment of our true calling and our purposeful obedience no matter what the cost would overwhelm our mission agencies and pulpits with new candidates. There is a desperate need in our nation for the next generation of pastors. There remains an ever-present black abyss of millions of people who have never even heard the name Jesus all over the world. I am convinced that so few really examine their own calling that a wholehearted affirmation of the importance of all our callings would lead to a great increase in those stepping forward for pioneer missionary and pastoral leadership.
  14. We do not choose our calling – we only choose to fulfil it or not. Our calling may be a fulfilment of our (God-given) desires or it may be a restraining force on our desires – compelling us to submit to the Lord and follow him despite what we would like to do. Like David who desired to build God’s temple,  we can have good desires to serve God, but they don’t always mean we will see them fulfilled.

I say all this, not as a dispassionate observer, but as someone who has wrestled with their own calling for so many years. It was CT Studd, that great missionary who said: “Only one life, ’twill soon be past, only what’s done for Christ will last.” What does our inner mind say to ourselves when we hear this? Is it only preaching, bible translating, pastoral visits, bible studies and evangelism that CT is talking about here? “Whatever you do, do it with all your heart, as working for the Lord and not men” was what the apostle Paul said. Are we brave enough to really believe that this includes ALL of life?

I have been a reluctant servant for so many years, wishing God would free me up to preach, when my time was being soaked up by work. I now see that I must obey his plans for me no matter how much my heart yearns for another path. I am serving him as he wants right now. I can either serve him fully where I am now, or continually fight against it.  I do believe one day that things will change, but I am no longer seeing the present as (only) “preparation” or a means to an end. I am resigned, submitted, my will is defeated, whatever path I am led on…I am his slave in the present, in this place, for his purpose.

Father, help us know the path you have for each one of your children, lead us on those straight paths and use us in whatever way you deem fit – not our will but your will be done. Remove our stubborness and pride and self-sufficiency. Make us truly humble and submissive to your Soverign will, for we know it is the best possible journey and leads to the most blessed destination – unity with our maker now and forever,  Amen.

The embracing and incisive call of Christ

Recently I was sitting in a church building that had been officially “decommissioned” by the Church of Scotland for a festive concert. I sat listening to the local school choir sing “Make me a channel of your peace“, with no reference at any point to who the “Your” was in this prayer. Carols were sung to an absent “newborn King” as no advent message was said at any point to provide a context for the singing. I started to wonder what the Lord would make of it all. What happens when you rid a church of its figurehead and sing carols and hymns with no thought to who they speak of? Should this be a cause for sober reflection or should I be thankful that these old traditions still have a (minor) place in our secular society?

Last week’s Economist reports that the number of people in England calling themselves members of the Church of England has fallen from 40% to 20% since 1983. I would suspect a similar trend is occurring in Scotland. I asked myself: If people are leaving the established church should the remnants of their cultural connections be mourned or appreciated? Should I be grieved that people no longer know the King that they sing of in “Hark the Heralds”, or should I be glad that at least they find some shadow of significance in these cultural relics?

As I reflected on this I thought of Jesus’ approach to people – he was able to simultaneously welcome all regardless of their shallow understanding or commitment, while also putting his finger on the pressure points of his followers. His deep spirituality didn’t repel him from the half-hearted jew (Zacchaeus), or the proud know-it-all (Nicodemus) or the woman caught in adultery – he was attracted to them, and them to him. There was an embracing, non-judgemental, non-threatening acceptance of people he met, in fact, of every person he met. His embrace was not determined by their attitude or depth of belief, but by his own. He loved people and met people just where they were, without pressurising them to conform to a standard before they were eligible to receive his love.

And yet while this never changed throughout his life, there ultimately came a moment to challenge their shallow understanding. He wasn’t content to leave them as they were, but wanted to take them deeper into what it means to be follow him. We see the pressure points throughout his ministry, for example with the rich young ruler and the challenge to denounce his material possessions. However, it is in John chapter 6 that this is brought most clearly into view. Three times we read of Jesus challenging his hearers – firstly the crowd after they had been fed and Jesus challenges them that they are only seeking their physical needs (John 6.26), then the disillusioned crowd who don’t understand his metaphor of unity (v60-66), and finally we even see it with the disciples – “Do you also want to leave?” he asks them (v67).

Once it comes, the incisive call of Christ cuts deeply and many decided that this is the end of their interest in this Rabbi. Sadly his embracing love was eventually rejected by the majority of people who initially followed him. For at the heart of the love which caused him to embrace all mankind is the call to renounce all other lesser loves that compete for our attention. Peter realised this and knew he had nowhere else to turn “Lord, to whom shall we go, you have the words of eternal life” (v68). 

The important thing for the UK is not retaining the moralistic values that are remnants of our Christian heritage, but for those who profess to follow Christ to rediscover both the embracing and incisive aspects of Christ’s call. Too many of us focus only on one side, leaving people either unclear (and unconvinced) regarding our convictions, or doubting our love and compassion (so they are not attracted to what we say). Christians must hold these two in tension – embrace all, irrespective of belief, lifestyle or attitude and this will naturally bring people into communities where we can unpack the incisive aspects of Christ’s call from a shared understanding and mutual respect.

We must also be sensitive to the means and methods we employ in communicating these two aspects – social media, church services, home groups and community activities should all communicate both of these aspects, but in very different ways and in different proportions. Lets make sure we don’t mix up the order (and balance) that Jesus exemplified, and be so incisive that no one is embraced, or so embracing that no one is changed.

Looking for Wilberforce and finding Hitchens

After watching Amazing Grace a couple of weeks ago, I decided that my next book would be the biography of William Wilberforce written by William Hague. So one day last month I walked into a bookstore to see if this was the biography I was going to buy on the great abolitioner. I had had my fingers burnt before by buying a biography of Churchill, also written by a politician and with a nice cover – only to realise how dull and prosaic it was once I started reading it… I would not make the same mistake twice!

So I walked into the bookshop and looked for the biography section, once there I looked under “W” – no Wilberforce biographies to speak of. “Perhaps they are listed by author?” I thought, so proceeded to “H”. As I glanced along the various H biographies, there he was staring back at me, not William Wilberforce but Christopher Hitchens, and his memoirs, Hitch-22. This would be interesting I thought as I picked it up – flicking through the pages I became transfixed by his younger pictures and those of his family. “What happened to this guy to make him hate religion so much?” I asked myself and decided in that instant to read it.

Hitchens introduces his memoirs from his sickbed – ill with the throat cancer that is hastening his advance towards the final chapter of his life. My copy is a re-edition, with a new foreword, as he now reflects that the first part of the book was unknowingly written with “a strong preoccupation with impending death”. This awareness gives him a heightened sense of irony as he begins his work by reminiscing on the day his erroneous obituary appeared in a magazine. He then moves to his family and childhood upbringing, moving chronologically up until his graduation, after which the book skips through different themes rather than a strict chronology.

Without giving too much away, his chapter on his mother provides a clear motivation for his feelings towards religion in general and Christianity in particular. After reading the things he had to deal with as a young man I can honestly understand why he sees such vice in religion. Indeed, I would have probably felt the same had I gone through such experiences. As always with anyone who has an aggressive anti-Christian philosophy, the roots of this begin in broken relationships, facile explanations and hypocritical believers.

But through it all I found myself warming to the man and finding in him a literary kinship that I wasn’t expecting after reading his God Is Not Great. So to summarise, here are the things I really like about Christopher Hitchens:

  1. His love of literature – he has read more books, poets and plays than I could ever hope to and he can quote from hundreds of authors to colour his prose. I too love literature, but come from it from the perspective of someone who studied the sciences at school and only discovered the classics in my 20s when I decided I needed to improve my vocabulary. I didn’t have the privilege of education that he had, but share his love for it, in fact if I could do my time again I would do my best to get on the PPE degree – Politics, Philosophy and Economics.
  2. His concern for the oppressed – reading his memoirs its easy to see what motivates him. He identifies with the down-trodden, the voiceless minorities of militant dictators, the political enemies of the state – all these draw out his love. He champions the cause of those without political power and he is willing to put his name on the line in the cause of creating a more civilised and just society.
  3. His desire to make a difference – he has made it his aim in life to spend time travelling and living in conflict zones. During the 70s, 80s and 90s he sought to ride the crest of the political wave across the world’s most troubled countries. He seeks to create a more liberal, open-minded society by raising awareness and uncovering injustice in some of the most forgotten places on earth.
  4. His pursuit of perfection in writing – as someone who has spent most of their career sharpening their ability to craft an argument and present a case, his relentless pursuit of the perfect adjective and striking analogy leaves me in awe. His power is in his prose, and he refines and refines it until it is as sharp as his wit and as penetrating as his intellect.
  5. His intellectual rigour – strange as it may seem, I actually appreciate the robustness of his thinking and the challenge he presents to his opponents. On the whole, he doesn’t allow his loyalty to friends or his political allegiances to bias his views. He seeks to think things through from first principles – a character trait I admire and seek to emulate. Although often he is more forgiving of himself than his enemies.

Interestingly, he describes at one point his loves and hates “In the hate column: dictatorship, religion, stupidity, demagogy, censorship, bullying and intimidation. In the love column: literature, irony, humour, the individual and the defence of free expression.” I share many of these values and find in Hitchens a like-minded thinker, someone who ruthlessly examines his own beliefs and the world around him to understand the times we live in, but who also identifies with the rights of the individual to live their lives free of interference and superstition.

Yet through it all I found an undercurrent of sadness – the failure, within Hitchens own lifetime, of the socialist system to produce the just and fair society in practice that it promised in theory; the impact the excesses of his bohemian lifestyle had on his own family and finally and the utter hopelessness of his secular atheism. As he closes the book he gets to the root of this dilemma – how to be so sure of his materialistic secularism? Towards the end of the final chapter he states that “It is not that there are no certainties, it is that it is an absolute certainty that there are no certainties”. How can someone so obviously intelligent and penetratingly logical come up with such a statement? “The only certainty in life is that I am right” is what he says in effect. He teaches his followers that there is nothing certain in life, just the certainty of hopelessness. 

In an ironic twist he even celebrates his open-mindedness as he closes the book: “To be an unbeliever is not merely to be “open-minded”. It is rather, a decisive admission of uncertainty that is dialectically connected to the repudiation of the totalitarian principle, in the mind as well as in politics.” But this open-mindedness applies only to those things his pre-assumptions tell him are correct – that there is no God, no spiritual aspect to life, no greater being than humans, nothing beyond the physical. Based upon these assumptions he is happy to entertain any question, but challenge these assumptions and you are either a naive imbecile or a power-wielding megalomanic.

For what Hitchens is missing is humility, the admission that we don’t know it all – we cannot say for certain that what we cannot see is not there. His pride and bitterness blinds him to the possibility of a greater purpose in life. If there really is no certainty or hope then I’m all on for an honest facing of the facts and stoic acceptance of our fate. But if there is even a glimmer of hope, then surely those who search their own assumptions and allow what they experience in their lives and what they know deep in their hearts to challenge their assumptions deserve some respect?

There is a middle way – experiential faith. There is an element of knowing God that requires our obedience, as Calvin says “all correct knowledge of God, originates in obedience”. It begins by participating in the process of faith by assessing the historical evidence, refusing to accept blinkered explanations and challenging our pre-suppositions. The first step is one of reason and logic, the second one of trust. First Jesus says to us – “If anyone chooses to do God’s will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own” (John 7.17 and also see John 14.21), then he says “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20.29).

It is called faith, not because there is no evidence, but because the evidence leads me to believe in something my eyes cannot see. Faith is not inconsistent with reason and logic, but rather on their own they are not sufficient to experience a relationship with God. Hitchens already knows everything he needs to about God, he doesn’t need more evidence or proofs – the question is will he humble himself before this God or demand more from him? That is his Hitch-22 and it is the question we all face.

We need the tears of the prophet for a broken nation

For those of us who live in the UK the events of the past week have been shocking and saddening. Today the Prime Minister declared that the UK had a “broken society” . Many are now searching for reasons as to why this eruption in social unrest should break upon these lands so quickly and with so little warning. Those of us who have watched the moral collapse of our country first hand are not surprised. But while we have long predicted that moral collapse would follow the wholesale abandonment of the UK’s Christian heritage, now is not a moment for “I told you so”.

For the last couple of months I have been studying the life of Elijah and his ministry to a backslidden and apostate Israel. Elijah realised that at the heart of the people’s problems was their broken relationship with God. So too in our day, I believe that the first place to look for a cause for our situation is at the door of the Christian church. God has appointed the church to be a light to the world, preserving the good, opposing the bad. Although a marginalised church cannot prevent a nation from self-destruction, if the light is not shining brightly then how great is the darkness?

Thus it is that for years in the UK there has been gradual deterioration in the faithfulness and purity of the church. The church has been under sustained attack and has not, on the whole, managed to withstand the attack. The result has been an undermining of our confidence and belief in the supremacy of scripture, the reality of judgement to come and the uniqueness and lordship of Jesus. Our modern liberals call themselves “Progressive” as they discard the historic truths of the Christian faith, our institutional leaders call themselves “Embracing” as they ride roughshod over central biblical truths on sexuality, edit out the miraculous from scripture and refuse to speak out on anti-Christian legislation.

The role of the prophet was to speak God’s eternal and unchanging truth into the ever-changing contemporary world. It was often an unpleasant word as they rebuked the indifference and compromise of the people, the hypocrisy and self-serving of the leaders and the dishonesty of the king. But there’s was no impersonal detached edict – it was the burning passion for the honour and glory of their God that etched itself across their souls. They spoke as they felt and they felt God’s heart – broken for the waywardness of his children who should know better, who should repent sooner, who should obey more wholeheartedly. Although they did speak judgement on the nations around Israel, they were not primarily concerned with these nations. Their first and primary calling was to the nation of Israel, to God’s own people, called through Abraham, rescued through Moses and exalted through David. They had had all the blessings and privileges possible, and still they abandoned Jehovah within two generations of the wilderness refugees.

And are we so different? We in the UK, indeed in Scotland, have a blessed heritage. Many prominent Christians have shaped this nation in the past centuries to give us as strong a foundation as anywhere in the world. But what type of building have we constructed on this foundation? When did our light go out in this dark nation? When did we cease to pass on the truths to the next generation? When was that connection of 2 Timothy 2.2 broken? Like the melting of an iceberg – imperceptible but continual, the erosion in historic Christianity has occurred. Gradually we lost our theology, then we lost our convictions, then we eventually lost our piety and practise. We were left with nothing to say and no one listening.

The word of the prophet speaks into the darkness – “Remember the height from which you have fallen and do the things that you did at first. You have lost your first love, but return and I will return to you, break up your unploughed ground and clear your filled wells. Come back in brokenness, humility and fear and I will heal you”. Only as there is a reformation in the church can the healing hope for our society be administered, for there is no one to administer it apart from the church. Our nation is looking for an answer and will look to every solution apart from God, but nevertheless, now is a moment for those in leadership to bring a prophetic message, mixed with tears of pain, to a wounded nation. Are we prepared for God to break us for our nation so that we can say: “streams of tears flow from my eyes, for your law is not obeyed” Psalm 119.136?

Father have mercy on us this day, remember your people, restore your church, bring hope to the nations. Father, give us the tears of the prophet broken for your people, the heart of the prophet to feel as you feel for the lost world, the mouth of the prophet to speak your truth into our hurting nation and give us the eyes of the prophet to see the glory of the coming king who will refine his church, judge the corrupt and restore the honour of his name in his world.